Category Archives: Women

Open Mouths: Free speech in Burma?

‘Things will only change if she wins. If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.’

Woman and child in downtown Yangon
Woman and child in downtown Yangon

Pausing at a busy junction in downtown Yangon as I wait to cross, a heavy bag on my back, an older Burmese woman mutters under her breath telling me it is safe to cross. The midday heat has begun to settle in the gaps in the traffic and will not lift until the daily downpour around four. The woman walks deliberately slowly but is evidently still close enough to me when we reach the curb opposite to continue the conversation. My impulse is to speed ahead but she isn’t finished with me yet. So, I slow my pace to match hers as she tells me that I must be surprised her English is so good because I have met so many Burmese people who cannot speak proper English. She continues: All the young people in Burma are getting a bad education at the national schools and are having to pay for extra tuition (with the same teacher) outside school time – a scheme deeply entrenched in the country’s economics [1]. They do not learn good English, my companion assures me. Even the doctors here do not speak English; if you explain your symptoms in English – which is a more appropriate language for medical issues – they will complain and presume to charge you the “international price”, a high rate in US Dollars, not Burmese kyat. The woman explains: This is all because the education minister will not get out of his seat (either to do any work or to make way for a minister who will do the work). When she grew up, the British education system was still in place – that is the reason she speaks English so well [2]. But now, only private international schools teach good English. That’s why the Number One sends his children overseas, to western schools. Everyone knows he’s been putting money into overseas banks for years; he is ready to flee if anything goes wrong for him here.

Aung San's image hangs in a restaurant at Setse, Mon State
Aung San’s image hangs in a restaurant at Setse, Mon State

When my talkative new advisor shares her political views with me, I don’t have to ask who ‘she’ is; she needn’t be named. She’s been on my mind constantly since I began seeing her photo pasted next to her father’s portrait or twinned with posters saying NATIONAL LEAGUE for DEMOCRACY above people’s houses, outside shops and in restaurants all across the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, it seems, is all anyone can think about in Burma. ‘If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.’ Like her father, Aung San, once was, ‘she’ is the vehicle of hope that carries Burma ever onward to the upcoming November 8th election.

With that, this loquacious older woman turns left down a side street going south, muttering goodbye as she walks. I have barely uttered a thing but small signs of interest and encouragement since we crossed the road. I didn’t even get her name. Though I am desperately trying to remember every word this stranger has shared, I am not surprised by the sharing itself. In fact, I have found openness is a vital element of Burmese social interaction. My time in Burma quickly taught me that people are ready to talk. People have long been ready to talk. They just have to meet the right audience.

This encounter enabled me to understand what I had already been hearing, and pushed me to be there to listen at a time when Burmese people were ready to open their mouths.

‘If NLD wins, freedom of speech begins. If USDP wins, we cannot do anything.’[3]

A youth hostel in Hpa-An shows support for NLD

Koko was the first person to tell me this, though I heard the same views countless times afterward. Out walking in the hills east of Inle Lake, the pouring rain, biting mosquitos and churned-up mud (we followed a herd of cows along this road) were not enough to distract us from our topic. I learned more about contemporary Burma from my trekking guide over two days than in anything I’d read. The fifth son of a local tomato farmer who died almost a decade ago, 21 year old Koko has never left the Inle Lake area. His move to Nyaungshwe a little over two years ago was the first time he’d ever lived on land. (Tomatoes are grown in floating gardens, houses are built on stilts over the water, and boats are the sole means of transport.) Having worked in a hotel for two years, he began to study English in April 2015, around the time he became a trekking guide and began spending more time with foreigners. He was as eager as I to learn from our exchange, so I taught him new English vocabulary as he enlightened me about Burmese politics. He shared what he has gleaned of the Burmese electoral system and politics. Apparently, every time Myanmar has an election the government gets to decide what that means, and how it works, and people then need to be educated if they are to stand a chance of effectively participating. [4]

First, he explained that votes (for a chosen party, rather than a specific candidate) are cast at monasteries. As far as he knows, monks do not or are not allowed to vote; monks (a huge percentage of Burma’s population) remain impartial. Perhaps this impartial group counts the votes? It is not clear to Koko who counts the votes or how the monks are involved [5]. He observed that the ambiguity of the system is one way the USDP maintains significant power in modern Burma, despite the semblance of democracy in which a huge percentage vote against the USDP. Secondly, while four of us slide and stumble down a steep muddy riverbed, Koko explains the relationship between family and politics in Burma. Family members usually vote the same way; young people, able to vote at 18, generally follow their parents voting tendencies. Very rarely do people vote differently from their family – if they want to, the individual will try to persuade the family of his or her reasoning, explaining their motives for this choice, and vice versa. The family will try to come to a resolution by which every family member will vote for the same party. If they cannot, there is no pressure against voting differently; we vote for whoever we want to win.

Why stay silent?

Talking about voting preference usually stays within the family, or perhaps as far as the extended family or close community members. It is dangerous to discuss political matters with anyone you do not know well because there are government spies who will infiltrate communities or small villages, gather information and report names to government officials who will deal with opposition voters or troublemakers as they see fit, Koko tells me. It can be extremely dangerous to speak openly in public.

Several famous Burmese comedians have been arrested, forced to work in labour camps, and imprisoned or put under house arrest for vast stretches of time – from 2 months to 7 years, and even sentenced to 59 years in prison, in Zarganar’s [6] case. Why? Because comedy shows are traditionally critical of the government. Satirical comedy is at the heart of Burmese entertainment shows – all-nighters that include the entire range of acting, dancing, music, opera, and end with comedy shows at 5am – but their farcical depictions of government officials have landed several comedians in deep trouble. Although they know the danger intimately, their livelihood depends upon the right to free speech, which holds a major position in their jokes:

In need of dental care, Mr Moustache leaves his home in Burma and crosses the border in order to see a dentist in Thailand.

Dentist: Don’t you have dentists in Burma?

Moustache: We do, but we are not allowed to open our mouths!

The Moustache Brothers were once a trio (two brothers and their cousin), who were known for their traditional A-Nyeint [7] comedy shows. Two were imprisoned for a stretch of 7 years as a result of a well-attended show at Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence in Yangon. One of the brothers, Par Par Lay, died in 2013 from lead poisoning – a complication relating to his long-term imprisonment after working in a labour camp. Lu Maw, the remaining brother, still shows off his fine moustache, his corpus of English idioms, and his family’s talent at nightly comedy shows in Mandalay. He is not free to perform publicly. Instead he invites tourists into his home, despite the risk it poses for his huge family who live and perform with him. For him, the danger has always been there. It will not cease to exist until those in power move over and allow democratically elected leaders into government. Lu Maw has been speaking his mind for decades. He has consistently been one of a few individuals unperturbed by the danger still alive. In days past, many voices have joined in and been snuffed out through acts of mass violence, such as the Saffron Revolution of 2007. The threat of real violence is enough to keep many people silent, most of the time. But now, mouths are opening throughout Burma.

Lu Maw on stage at his home in Mandalay
Lu Maw on stage at his home in Mandalay

Why open up now?

Koko said that he can speak freely (fairly freely) now, because there is an election coming up on November 8th. [8] The date was announced about a month before I met Koko in August 2015. Normally, though, one has to be very careful when speaking about politics.

The upcoming election is an excuse for Burmese citizens to speak freely, for a change. I saw signs outside shops, billboards in the city, and houses blaring music and displaying posters. On September 6th, exactly nine weeks before election day, political parties were finally able to campaign and so began parading through Burmese cities to rally support. The USDP volunteers were sparse and sour-faced as they drove around Mandalay. NLD, on the other hand, were cheery and plentiful; in each neighbourhood people poured out of their homes and businesses to greet the motorcade and big bus decorated with the party logo and a huge image of Aung San Suu Kyi, topped off with resounding music and a team of beautiful dancers on the roof. Zin Mi, Lu Maw’s daughter, recounted the rallies leading up to the 2010 election [9], when her uncle Par Par Lay was still alive. In those days, the famous comedian joined the motorcade on his motorcycle, garnering support for the NLD. He told people: do not be afraid. They liked and trusted him, so many emerged to show their support for the NLD due to his encouragement. Zin Mi grinned at me with every new piece of information shared; apparently, not many foreign tourists have shown a deep interest in the Burmese elections, let alone bought an NLD t-shirt. Fondly remembering her uncle, she assured me that she is not afraid.

Campaigning begins, in Mandalay, two months before the November election
Campaigning begins, in Mandalay, two months before the November election

However, many peaceful activists and human rights defenders have recently been arrested and imprisoned in the run up to November 8th. Showing no fear is not enough.

Why open up to me?

On several occasions, people asked whether I was Burmese. They did not simply ask where I am from. Instead, they wanted to know: ‘Is your mother Burmese? Your father?’ and I soon believed that I look a little Burmese. Perhaps it was just a case of wearing the right clothing (a longyi, t-shirt and sandals) and behaving modestly? While I was wearing my NLD t-shirt I got the thumbs up wherever I went – even from a security guard in customs at Mandalay airport – a sign of appreciation for the NLD. But I’m not convinced a Burmese man (for it was mostly men) would truly believe an Englishwoman to be Burmese, despite my being dark-haired and tanned. No, I believe these curious passers-by were trying to gauge their audience, trying to judge whether my apparent interest in their country rendered me safer or more dangerous to divulge honest opinions to. The bright red NLD shirt, it seemed, encouraged NLD supporters to communicate with me upon common ground: a mutual love of democracy and hope for Burma’s future.

On meeting the elder Burmese woman on the street corner, I was not yet wearing an NLD shirt, just a large, heavy backpack, sunglasses and loose trousers. It was clear to everyone around me that I was a tourist, not a local, nor was I living in Yangon. I had just arrived in Yangon and was quickly approaching my final week on a 28-day visa. I knew virtually nobody in the city, and likely had no relationship with any kind of minister or official.

Koko gave me the impression that most foreigners he’d met had not asked him about political matters. The Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (Burma) instructs tourists to tread carefully when approaching Burmese people about political issues. Is it surprising that that wariness becomes fear under the watchful eye of the military junta? Tourists passing through can hardly be expected to put their safety at risk when they’re just trying to see some more golden pagodas. Yet this young man could hardly have been more eager to discuss details of the Burmese political system, when asked. As soon as he understood he could trust me not to rat him out to the Burmese government, all he needed was a prompt. It is clear that on the Yangon street corner, a quick glance was all that this woman needed to rest assured I was safe. Others asked whether I am Buddhist. Everyone I spoke to found an (any) excuse to begin talking with me and, later, turned the conversation towards politics.

A tourist is trustworthy; I evidently do not work for the Burmese government, nor am I a spy. It is far easier to divulge frustrations about the government to me than to another Burmese citizen; foreigners do not pose the threat of destroying Burmese peoples’ lives. [10]

In the grand scheme of things, foreigners do not matter inside Burma. But outside? Foreigners have potential for far greater power outside Burma. Tourists go home and tell the world how kind the Burmese are, how cheap their trip was and how beautiful the scenery is. All this is true. But what tourists should be telling the world is: People in Burma are oppressed and we can help.

How have people helped?

Comedians such as Lu Maw and Zarganar have gained notable international attention for decades. Their names are in Lonely Planet guides and Lu Maw relies on guidebook-toting tourists as his audience. Since early 2011, the Burmese government has shown signs of reform in international relations with the EU and UN; the government committed to releasing all political prisoners by 2013, after they had ended Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest (November 2010) and allowed the NLD to return to formal political process. [11]

Lu Maw gives a statement about the election at his home in Mandalay
Lu Maw gives a statement about the election at his home in Mandalay

Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are working in Burma (Myanmar) and doing a lot for people’s general wellbeing, particularly in small communities, but are limited as to their influence upon the political system.

Amnesty International has been conducting research and aid work in Burma since May 2012. AI reports state that positive changes have occurred and the Burmese government have taken some steps in the right direction, but major human rights abuses continue. Their most recent report shows: ‘Despite ongoing political, legal and economic reforms, progress on human rights stalled, with some backward steps in key areas.‘ In fact, it seems that repression has actually increased in the past two years, with high numbers of people being imprisoned for exercising their rights ahead of the November 8th election.

Amnesty International is calling upon the Burmese government in a new campaign to free prisoners of conscience, launched October 8th 2015. Read more about prisoners of consicence here, about AI work in Myanmar (Burma) here and here.

Oxfam’s most recent work in Burma has been focused on providing aid for victims of the flooding in Northern Burma in summer 2015. Oxfam works to improve governance in Burma, tackle poverty in rural farming and fishing communities, and help improve women’s rights and access to leadership roles.

However, donating to Oxfam will not direct your money towards helping people specifically in Burma, as it is a major international organization helping people worldwide every day. Read more about their work in Burma here.

US Campaign for Burma, Burma Campaign UK and Burma Partnership are just a few of the smaller NGOs dedicated entirely to improving lives in Burma.

How can you help?

  1. Petition international representatives in Burma

Help Burmese voices be heard by signing Amnesty International’s petition to the European Union, UK, USA, Australian, and Japanese representatives in Burma. Click here to help free all prisoners of conscience.

  1. Write to a local representative

You may need an international organization to help you petition international representatives in Burma itself, but you can petition your local representative without a middleman. You can use the form provided, adapt it or write your own message, but make sure to include the hyperlinks therein. Scroll down for instructions on how to contact your local representative.

Click here for the form. 

Contacting your local representative:

If you are in the UK –

There are various Ways to Contact Your MP. Here’s how to Find your local MP.

If you are in the USA –

You can Contact your Representative. Or Contact your Senator.

If you are in Australia –

Search to Find Your Electorate here or Find your local Member here. Read the Guidelines for contacting Senators and Members. Also read How to Get Politicians Attention.

If you are in South Africa –

To contact your Ward Counsellor you must contact the Customer Care centre of your municipality. Ward counsellors have offices and consultation times. To contact your Municipal Counsellor or MMC, find their contact information on your municipal website (all the municipalities have websites). To contact your Provincial Counsellor (MEC) you must go through the relevant departments (e.g. if you want to contact the MEC of Health for the Gauteng Province, look on the Department of Health website for the contact information).

If you are elsewhere –

It is highly likely that you know far more about how to contact politicians in your country than I do. If you’d like my help, or if you know how to contact your local politicians and would like to see your country added to this list, please contact me.

What else can you do to help?

  1. Get informed

I am just one recent visitor to Burma with an opinion based on personal experience and what I have been told by locals. You can read more about international relations between Burma and the European Union here, and about the United Nations work in the Asia Pacific region here.

That said, the international community seems to focus on the appearance of positive change (such as the announcement of a second democratic election following 2010’s election) as opposed to the harsher realities that NGOs are focusing on (such as prisoners of conscience and flood victims).

For a reliable pro-democracy report, I read The Guardian’s news about Burma.

  1. Help others get informed

Please share this article and/or the links therein – repost on your social media pages and email all your friends. The more people understand the current situation in Burma, the bigger difference we can make to further democratic progress in Burma.

Read more:

Lu Maw and The Moustache Brothers: Skirting Comedy Limits in Myanmar on NYTimes

David Pilling’s biography of Burmese comedian Zarganar

All images taken by the author.

[1] Children trying to sell things at tourist sites opine that they cannot afford the fees for extra tuition, not the actual school fees.

[2] Burma is one of the few countries in the world where parents are more educated than their children, due to a major decline in education standards since the military government seized power in 1962 (first as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) later as State Law and Order Restoration (SLORC)).

[3] NLD = National League for Democracy, pro-democracy opposition party founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988; USDP = Union of Solidarity and Development Party, headed by Sein Thein, current President of Myanmar.

[4] This autumn, the NLD began to circulate leaflets simply showing people how to ensure that their vote is counted. This included instructions on how to avoid spoiling the ballot and where they can go to vote.

[5] Monks can in fact vote. A few influential monks have drafted a bill preventing Rohingya Muslims from voting in elections and marrying Burmese Buddhist women.

[6] Burmese comedian Zarganar is famous for his satirical puns and wordplay, criticising the dictatorship. Unfortunately, the authorities know him too – of the past 30 years, he has spent over 10 in prison.

[7] A-Nyeint is a traditional style Burmese entertainment. Shows typically last all night and include a range of performances by different groups of actors, dancers, musicians, opera singers, and comedians.

[8] This is not the first election to have raised hope for the people of Burma, but is perhaps the first in 25 years that NLD have any chance of winning. The NLD won an overwhelming majority of votes in 1990, but the military junta refused to relinquish power.

[9] NLD boycotted the October 2010 general election, as Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Few were surprised that the USDP won.

[10] The stories I heard of foreigners doing real damage involved tourists reporting a stolen item to the police. Whoever is accused (it often comes back to the bus driver if the item disappeared during a bus journey) may face long-term imprisonment, despite the lack of concrete proof.

[11] Aung San Suu Kyi has held a (largely nominal) seat in Burma’s Parliament since 2012. In 1990 the SLORC amended the constitution stating that anyone with foreign children cannot be President. This ammendment was designed specifically to keep Aung San Suu Kyi out of power – she and her late British husband, Michael Aris, had two children, Kim and Alexander. They were 15 and 13 on her return to Burma in 1988, shortly before house arrest began. Aris died in 1999).

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite authors. She’s certainly my favourite African author and I believe she is the best female writer of our time. Her fiction is poetic and hugely powerful. She weaves enchanting and wonderfully moving stories about the reality of Nigerian life.

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Adichie was named one of the twenty most important fiction writers today under 40 years old by The New Yorker. She featured in the April 2012 edition of Time Magazine, celebrated as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Hers is the voice of a generation.

Adichie’s stories spark recognition within me. Not only do I remember fondly places I’ve lived, people I’ve met and friends I that I miss daily, but I feel a deep sense of understanding. Of home. Of humanity. Things that transcend distances of all kinds. She gives us a longer look into the real stories of Nigeria. Following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe, often dubbed the Father of the African Novel in English, Adichie is changing the perception of her Nigerian home in the outside world. She offers up stories – many, varying and widely different stories – that seem to reach into the heart of humanity and pull out only truth.

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Half of a Yellow Sun

Her 2009 talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ is a wonderful analysis of the power of stories:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

“When we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Adichie understands the power of stories when it comes to changing stereotypes and erasing false perceptions.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 11.35.39Adichie’s 2012 TEDxEuston Talk, part of an annual conference focused on Africa, shot to fame when Beyonce sampled it in her performance at the 2014 MTV VMAs: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you with threaten the man. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

While I have read much of her work including the written version of the talk, entitled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, I had not listened to it until last week, and promptly showed it to 70 Chinese undergraduate students (their responses to come). Her voice and presence transform already brilliant writing into something transcendent. The room crackles with truth, recognition and understanding.

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Half of a Yellow Sun

To those who read any of her novels (Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah), her ideas about gender are made crystal clear. The fact she admits she finds it hard to read classic feminist texts, acknowledges the stigma around the word ‘feminist’ and once labelled herself as a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men’ makes her an ideal role model for women worldwide, no matter what their background.

Adichie’s is a singular voice, but it speaks to many. Though we may not have personal experiences like her stories of Nigeria, most of us can identify with them and remember similar moments in our own lives. Her words cross the boundaries that divide us, her sentiments unite us.

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We Should All Be Feminists

There’s little that can be said in response to this – her words need no qualification. She’s just right.

Does having leg hair make me less of a woman?

Last week I shaved my legs for the first time in 9 months. Why? I wanted to see if it made me feel like more or less of a woman.

It began last summer (duh), during a bikini/beach/beer holiday with a gorgeous blonde and a beautiful Asian – the two women I lived with at the time. Our week in Croatia brought back a recurring issue for me. The pale hairy legs of the winter had to come out and face the summer sun. I have long felt required to shave/wax/epilate waaaaaaaay up to the top of my thighs because my hair grows thick and dark. (Look at that “because” – where does it place the blame? On the hair.) Ever since I have felt the presence of this obligation, I have felt uncomfortable with everything it stands for.

IMG_2461When I was 12 I was bullied for not shaving my legs. Every other girls’ mother, it seemed, had bought them razors and given them lessons in leg-shaving. This seemed like not only a rite of passage in what seemed like an instant shift from girl to woman, but also a mother-daughter bonding exercise that my mother seemed loathe to opt into. She disliked the entire concept of shaving and didn’t use razors. I was so insistent though, that she promised I could have my legs waxed for my year 7 summer disco – the end of primary education, the beginning of grown-up-hood. (I had emerged from the same disco two years earlier flanked by my two best friends who eagerly betrayed my under-cover-of-darkness disco activities to my waiting mother by spelling out: “She snogged, S-N-O-G-G-E-D A BOY!”)

I would spend that summer on a beach in Brittany reading Life of Pi, contemplating the size of my thighs and worrying about whether people at high school would think I was fat. The previous summer I had “borrowed” an older girl’s razor at camp and cut myself on my first attempt to shave my legs in the shower, then lied about it to my generously gullible (or so I thought) mother, telling her they had forced me to do it. The real impetus came from the bullying I got from the two sisters I shared a room with; it was all in their disgust at my downy 11-year-old legs. The summer after the Brittany beach I spent hours plucking my eyebrows in a tiny mirror and the half-light inside my tent. I returned to high school with chavvy, barely visible and too far apart eyebrows.

My life since puberty (perhaps before) has seemed like a constant battle between my mother’s and other girls’ (and thus their mothers’) opinions. The navigation of types of bras, deodorants, eyebrow plucking, underarm shaving, make-up wearing… everything was a contentious issue and I was stuck in no-man’s land. Short-term, other girls’ opinions (heavily dictated by advertising and celebrity culture) won out. My mother would love me whatever I did, so her opinion mattered less than the high school girls who would judge and exclude me for not following the crowd… But long-term, my mother’s talent for challenging the status quo has reigned supreme in me, and there are few opinions I value as much as hers.

These events are not simply part of the past and therefore to be brushed aside; they are cumulative experiences that affect my relationship with my body, and thus my bodily negotiation with the social, cultural and political world around me. They are part of my embodied knowledge of both my self and the other; that which governs me from within and which surrounds me from without.

In the midst of the fourth wave of feminism, women are reclaiming the female body in all kinds of ways. Australian actress Caitlin Stasey’s web project Herself, a space in which participating women’s bodies and words are openly displayed as they choose, is one inspiring model. Stasey states:

“Herself is a gesture to women for women by women; a chance to witness the female form in all its honesty without the burden of the male gaze, without the burden of appealing to anyone. Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.”


Your body is all you’ve got (the mind/spirit/body division is redundant – its not as though the mind is some separate entity controlling the body from a remote location):

One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors”, states Judith Butler (521)

Whether we like it or not, the body is the only vehicle through which we experience the political, social and cultural framework we are intrinsically a part of, and this inherently affected by. As Butler states, everything we do is governed somehow by our surroundings: “the body is always an embodying of possibilities both conditioned and circumscribed by historical convention.” (521)

This is particularly potent when we think about gender. Butler points out that there is a “tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders” (522). We take it as a given that there are defining lines between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and that these are clear and immutable. These “polar and discrete genders” divide along the biological lines of sex (male and female), and unite us within those two groups. If we think about the gendered body, ‘woman’ is expected to be significantly less hairy than ‘man’, regardless of genetic differences that actually affect the volume of hair that grows on the female body. (Where did this idea originate? It’s not as though women and men of the same racial background evolved with vastly different volumes of body hair.)

Butler asks her reader to “reconceive the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts” (523). Practices we consider normal, like what we do with the hair that grows on our bodies, accumulate over time to create our identity and thus our gendered identity. We begin by copying others and later reproduce these collective practices in order to create and sustain our gender. Women (particularly western women) are socialised to believe that the correct performance of their gender involves removal of visible hair all over the body.

The choice to stop shaving my legs after that Croatia trip was my way of reclaiming my body. I drew inspiration from my two wonderful companions who, sexy ladies that they are, did not feel the need to shave above the knee. Neither did they feel they were defying social requirements. Had they never felt the heat of disapproving eyes on their hairy legs because people hadn’t noticed? Had they never received comments about it because they’d got finer, lighter, less visible hair or because this was not a body issue that played on their minds? Were they so unconcerned about hair removal because nobody had ever told them they should do it or because they’d always had the confidence to tell those people to back off?

IMG_2483For me, advertising and peer pressure had been equally vicious and haunting influences upon my body image. I’d had hairy legs before (usually for the few weeks between boyfriend visits), but never shown them off in shorts or a bikini. Being hairy was (and still is) an issue I have a complex and uncomfortable relationship with. This time though, I let it grow and wore my hairy legs proudly. I spent the summer running a mile a day through busy streets wearing tiny shorts and in a bikini by the pool with my family. My initial weeks in China were unbearably hot, so shorts were the only comfortable option. The only comments I received were declarations of admiration and support.

Over the winter, my legs inevitably got paler and the hair just kept growing. For the first time I noticed how the hair grew – where it was thicker, where finer and the places where it just didn’t grow. It began to really know my body in a way I hadn’t previously. Looking down at my muscly thighs covered in fine dark hair I was reminded of my physical strength (perhaps I enjoyed the ‘masculine’ element of it?) and took courage. It felt like the real me.

The brilliant thing is that it required zero effort. My skin took care of itself underneath the hair (whereas shaved skin gets much drier and needs a lot more attention). It felt 100% natural for me to let my body be. I stopped performing my gender (in this one small aspect), and could relax.

The problems began when I wanted to have sex. In the run up to dates that could potentially go further, I interrogated myself continually. Should I shave my legs, just in case the evening went in that direction…? Or should I not allow the evening to end in sex (even if it were on the cards) so as to avoid the awkward disgust my hair might bring? I decided that any guy worth my time would simply accept me as I am, hair and all. Unfortunately, acceptance doesn’t necessarily counteract disgust.

It’s only happened a few times, but I have actually been told that my choice of personal grooming renders me physically less sexy or completely unattractive to the guy I’m attempting some kind of physical relationship with (once while actually still naked in his bed). Many people are too kind to comment, but will nonetheless expect women to have virtually zero body hair. But different men are bothered by hair on different body parts, so perhaps there are no universal expectations as such?

The existing expectations emerge through socialisation; the more we see hairless women (in real life, on tv, in magazines, in porn) the more we understand this to be the normal, natural thing for a woman to be. Butler states: “[t]he authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels ones belief in its necessity and naturalness.” (522) By shaving their legs, individual women are perpetuating the idea that women as a gender have hairless legs, and are thereby reducing wider social acceptance of hairy legs.IMG_2457

What is more natural than NOT changing your body? Unfortunately, this line of argument seems to have been lost in some twist of logic, and thus the ‘natural’ way for a woman to look/feel/be is hairless in all the right places.

Do women actually feel / look more female when they shave their legs? Does hairlessness make a female more of a woman? I wanted to try it out for myself. So I shaved my legs for the first time since last June.

I enjoyed the process because it brought change. Difference is always a positive thing, newness is fun while it lasts. But ultimately it brought me little joy and no permanent feeling of difference. I keep thinking, “I bet [insert inspirational woman’s name] doesn’t bother to shave her legs everyday.” What effect should a woman’s personal grooming habits have upon her public image? It doesn’t affect her personality; it only marginally changes her appearance… So why does it have such an impact on identity?

I’d like to extend my little experiment to women around the world. Cultural, racial and generational differences taken into account, do women feel they ought to remove their body hair and why? How does hair removal correlate to the correct performance of a woman’s gender?

Please let me know your thoughts!

Read on:

Butler, Judith. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.’ Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531. (Caitlin Stasey)

To Shave or Not to Shave; Why is that the question? Zhendegender, 2014

What is it with China and women? International Women’s Day 2015

Three days after International Women’s Day, I was given a women’s day present by my employer.

That’s very kind”, I said aloud. Inwardly I was screaming: “This is not what women’s day is about!

Overreaction? To the event itself, absolutely. Being given a beautiful silk scarf out of the blue simply for being female, is, of course, a delightful surprise. But look back at that statement. I didn’t say ‘simply for being’ – I said simply for being female. What bothers me is that the age-old division of people along gender lines (for absolutely no good reason whatsoever), is being powerfully reinforced by the Chinese media and industries.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 17.24.40March 8th is International Women’s Day. It is a UN designated day upon which we should be celebrating the progress of women’s rights activism worldwide, congratulating governments and NGOs for their hard work and thinking about our next step towards achieving equality. In an ideal world, we would no longer have any need for this day, because everyone would be equal. For now, it’s a reminder of that goal.

In China, however, Women’s Day is preceded by Girls’ Day (“Women’s Day” has somehow been translated to exclude young women), thus dividing the already underrepresented female population of China. Additionally, the ‘international’ element seems to have been dropped, which cuts all ties with communities of women around the world. The simple exclusion of one word has the psychological effect of isolating Chinese women from the very group this day is designed to connect them with. China’s media uses a celebratory day to further divide and isolate Chinese women.

Both Women’s and Girls’ days are marketed as commercial holidays designed specifically to enable women (both young and old) yet another opportunity to shop ‘til they drop. I saw women opening gifts and men carrying bunches of flowers, as if what Chinese women really need is another Valentine’s Day/Black Friday/[insert shopping holiday here], as opposed to more comprehensive human rights. What is this but playing to a plethora of media-induced and industry-generated gender stereotypes?

This may not seem like the deeply-ingrained wide-spread sexism I am making it out to be. I mean, commerce has commandeered and invented all kinds of random holidays worldwide in order to increase sales, right? But this goes beyond individuals giving and receiving gifts. This kind of behaviour has serious effects on women, socialising half (more than half!) the Chinese population into silence.

I wasn’t going to complain about my gift. Who would? And there’s the crux of the issue. Being honoured for a day by all sources commercial and capitalist makes women believe they are being treated with respect. A shower of material wealth on a day designed to celebrate women… what woman could find fault with that?

Nonetheless, there were public outcries about the representation of women in Chinese media last Sunday, when the Chinese search engine Baidu sported the equivalent of a Google Doodle for the occasion. Here’s what it looked like:

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 17.18.04

“The Chinese search company featured on its home page a princess doll twirling on top of a music box surrounded by jewelry and other accessories”, said the NYTimes Sinosphere blog.

It isn’t just that, though. As one Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) pointed out:

“Baidu’s Women’s Day logo made me sick[…] The Chinese still see women as an ornament, a Barbie doll, an easily manipulated windup toy […] This is what a happy woman should look like in the eyes of many.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 17.17.59

It still isn’t just that. Anyone looking closely at the image of the tiny rotating woman saw that she came in three models. She transforms from girl to bride/wife to mother, with appropriate accessories to match her changing social status. A young woman’s prized possessions are mirror, beads and lipstick. The bride wears a heart pendant and veil, her image made complete with a rose and wedding bands. The mother’s life revolves around baby’s pram, bottle and rubber duck.

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These are the three manifestations of woman. The only three roles the mainstream Chinese media seem to support. Youku (Chinese youtube) scrapped a commissioned illustration encouraging women to “be the person you’d like to be” in favour of a woman sitting among plants and drinking tea beneath a wreath of flowers:

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Our country doesn’t need creative women, it just needs pretty dolls to put in cages”, was the message one user gleaned from the Youku illustration. It’s not exactly an encouraging thought.

It’s all the more frustrating to know that China is inextricably linked to major women’s rights events. Beijing hosted the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women in 1995. Twenty years ago, 17,000 representatives from 189 governments came to this city and put together policies for protecting women’s rights.

In her Guardian article (link below). Chirlane McCray mentions Hillary Clinton’s address at the 1995 conference – an address that identifies women’s rights as human rights – but doesn’t mention the repercussions of her words in China.

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Clinton, who was first lady at the time, had been working closely with Wang Xingjuan. Wang had established China’s first women’s hotline (a support service for women experiencing domestic violence) in 1992. This affiliation with Clinton threw the women’s hotline into the spotlight; it was shut down shortly after the conference left Beijing.*

This week, leaders from around the world gathered in New York City for the Beijing+20 conference. They met to review the progress of the last two decades and renew their commitment to the policies and principles laid out in 1995.

Pictures from New York this week show world leaders participating in the public demonstration – happily engaging with citizens, activists and NGOs alike. The NGO forum for the 1995 event was moved (at the last minute) to the countryside outside Beijing and held in Huairo, a significant distance from the conference itself, in order to avoid potential ‘disruptions’ to the proceedings.

The 1995 incident was echoed this year: While many women were being distracted with a shower of sexism and unnecessary gifts, Chinese feminist activists were arrested and held over International Women’s Day without cause. Ten women were detained on Friday and Saturday, and five were still being held in custody on Monday.

This was a security issue, apparently. These activists had intended to campaign against sexual harassment on Sunday, as they’d done on previous International Women’s Days. This year, the event coincided with China’s annual National People’s Congress. Because of course women’s rights activism is a security threat.

On International Women’s Day this year I attended a discussion about women’s rights in China with my two best friends – two strong young women I know will go far, both with ambitions of living/working/studying abroad but whose families are pressuring them to find boyfriends and to get married. I admire these two wonderful women, but I can’t help wonder how they’ll get past the disadvantages deeply ingrained in them simply through growing up in China.

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* Wang Xingjuan is now the director at The Maple Women’s Counseling Center, which grew out of the women’s hotline initiative.


You won’t believe what Youku and Baidu have as their Women’s Day doodles (Shanghaiist)

Baidu Users Object to Women’s Day doodle (NYTimes)

China detains feminist activists over International Women’s Day (Guardian)

No need for International Women’s Day? What world do you live in? (Guardian)

Chirlane McCray: Women are the future of cities (Guardian)

25 Things I Did Instead of Getting Married at 25

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Thirteen months ago, I published an article entitled 25 Things I did Instead of Getting Married At 25. It’s a polemic and judgemental piece about marriage and married people, spurred on by sensationalism. It was an overreaction to people I knew getting engaged, having babies, and posting pictures of their weddings on Facebook. Perhaps it was I, not they, who was scared shitless about the future.

I had been worried that people my age were choosing marriage, relationships, and children – what I viewed as symbols of conventional life – over careers, travel, and self-improvement. I wrote: How can they be my friends when we are so clearly of very different attitudes toward life?

I was proud of everything I’d achieved, having left my home country and arrived, alone, in China. I wanted to tell the world: there are other ways to live a fulfilling life. (Or did I think I needed to prove that some ways are better?) But, what I failed to ask myself was “why should their life choices reflect mine?”

I have always had conflicting views on marriage. Marriage doesn’t seem personally necessary when I know I could live a (financially, socially, politically) stable and independent life perfectly happily. It is difficult for me to see the relevance of an ancient social convention in modern life, particularly with its links to religious bodies that have never held a significant position in my life. It has been particularly hard to reconcile my feminism with the idea of one day getting married: marriage traditionally implied the ownership (and thus restriction) of a woman, and why would any woman willingly choose that?

Times have changed. People have changed. The nature of marriage has changed.

I would still argue that marriage is largely non-essential in modern Western life. I do still believe that marriage is not the only way to show you love someone. But I’ve stopped seeing it as “a pointless gesture people undergo to publicly declare their feelings”.

The very fact that it is non-essential for the majority of people is possibly the most powerful element of modern marriage. Rather than becoming insignificant, it possibly means more than it once did, purely because it is so heavily reliant on individual choice.

I would nevertheless advocate exploring a less conventional path through life, particularly for young people in countries where marriage is still the expectation. For example, many young Chinese women are still expected to get married by the time they are 27, under threat of becoming a “leftover woman” if they wait too long. Rather than be forced into marriage by the phantom “biological clock”, I believe the marriage question must be left to individual choice.

At 25 there’s still so much learning, growing, travelling to be done!

Perhaps there are many more interesting things you could do with your time than settle down with your mortgage and a brand new hubby. But marriage is not the end of life. In fact, it could just be the beginning. There’s still so much living to be done, that in 10 years time, you’re probably not going to be the same person you are right now. So if you’ve found someone who’ll love you for who you are in years to come, rather than who you once were, then you’re a very lucky person.

Getting married is not settling down, it is flying free together.

Nonetheless, it is with pride that I give you 25 things I did instead of getting married at 25:

  1. Fill up a passport five years before it expires
  2. Get a job that changes lives
  3. Move a few thousand miles from home and stay there
  4. Live alone and make your house your home
  5. Start a blog and publish things people actually read
  6. Meet friends with whom you only speak your second language(Korean)
  7. Begin studying a third language(Chinese)
  8. Make your own fresh coffee instead of buying it
  9. Create and nurture an indoor garden… keep the plants alive!
  10. Sing at an open mic event unrehearsed
  11. Learn Capoeira
  12. Quit the job with the sexist boss
  13. Read non-fiction of your own choosing
  14. Study online courses
  15. Become financially independent which means doing your own tax returns & facing up to the Student Loans Company
  16. Vote in the UK elections from overseas
  17. Dance around naked in your living room
  18. Make your Dad proud so he tells you every time you talk
  19. Invite your Mother to visit and stay in your home
  20. Tell the world “I am a Feminist!”
  21. Actually make friends with colleagues
  22. Learn more about Buddhism
  23. Inspire people around you
  24. Celebrate Lunar New Year in proper Chinese style(over-eating and fireworks)
  25. Never stop setting new goals

post revised 10th April 2016

Read on


Having It All: Career and Love: can we ever have it all?

‘If You Got a Big Ol’ Butt? Shake It!’ Nicki Minaj’s abortion

‘If You Got a Big Ol’ Butt? Shake It!’… But You’ll Be Damned for Taking Charge of Your Own Body

News of Nicki Minaj’s abortion was used by the media as anti-choice propaganda

lyrics-nicki-minaj-superbass-1Nicki Minaj had a massive year in 2014. With everyone talking about her big ol’ butt (her words), which was in full view – literally – across the media, it was pretty hard to ignore her.

She’s been on my radar for several years now (that brilliant voice, those insane lyrics, y’know?), but until last year, I hadn’t given Minaj herself much thought – as a person, a woman, and an icon.

My younger brother (who admires Minaj but is too young to recognise the Sir Mix-a-lot sample she uses in Anaconda) watched our sister and I watch the Anaconda video, insisting he wanted our opinions. I wasn’t sure how to react. Should I be shocked? Why shouldn’t she show off her mindbendingly awesome (mostly plastic) body? Finally we agreed she’s pretty awesome – to feel able to rap about her sexual relationships in a way society normally associates with male artists is pretty out-there.

Thus began my ever-growing admiration for Nicki Minaj. She is honest, hilarious and bloody-minded. Where other celebrities are defensive about their appearance (particularly when it comes to plastic surgery), she is relentlessly loud and proud. Her laughter is infectious. Her songs are bold, unique and articulate.

“I stand for girls wanting to be sexy and dance, but also having a strong sense of themselves. If you got a big ol’ butt? Shake it! Who cares? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be graduating from college.” (Minaj in Rolling Stone interview)


Her self-awareness and ownership of her mind and body makes her an inspirational role model for young women – she reassures us that we can be sexy and smart. She appears to have no guilt, no regrets, and no second thoughts.

That’s why I was shocked when the headlines reported Minaj was ‘haunted’ by a teenage abortion.


Actually reading the Rolling Stone article, I soon discovered Minaj wasn’t ‘haunted’ by her abortion – she didn’t regret terminating the baby. She was 100% open about the difficulty of a teenage pregnancy for any young woman: “I thought I was going to die,” she stated. “I was a teenager. It was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through.” But that doesn’t mean she’s torn up about the abortion – not by far. Knowing she “didn’t have anything to offer a child”, Minaj still fully supports the decision she made then, and is still pro-choice.

She was – as always – refreshingly honest about her abortion. Despite – or perhaps because of – her honesty (it’s not like anyone need go looking for revealing images of her), her private life has not come into the public sphere very much before – which is absolutely her prerogative. Now though, with the recent break-up of her long-term relationship, her private life is becoming more and more public.

On the album she built up to for the entirety of 2014, The Pinkprint, her personal life is taking the main stage: “One of my goals was to give people a glimpse into my personal life, because it’s something I’ve kept very private,” she told Rolling Stone.

In line with her usual bolshy personality, she is unashamedly upfront about it all: “I struggled with ‘Do I express these feelings?’ And I decided there’s no reason for me to hide. I’m a vulnerable woman, and I’m proud of that.” Minaj is ever more the multi-faceted, open woman she has been to date.

-nicki-minaj-Even more admirable? She’s aware of the role she plays as a female icon, knows her influence and isn’t afraid to use it for greater good. She knows how much her records will get played, she’s aware of every move, every word: “Millions of people are gonna hear it. And you gotta watch everything you say — people find an issue with every fucking thing.”

Which is why she should be applauded for speaking out about her abortion, both in interview and in a song on The Pinkprint:

“It’d be contradictory if I said I wasn’t pro-choice. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have anything to offer a child.”

But how did the media react to Minaj’s open, honest admittance of having an abortion (and knowing it was the right decision for her)? ‘Nope, we can’t cope with that. We’ll have to make out like she wishes she’d chosen the delights of teen motherhood over her insanely successful career as Hip-Hop’s Killer Diva.’ Instead of Minaj’s statements being let alone to stand for themselves (as they well should), the headlines took all the autonomy out of her statements and twisted her words into anti-choice propaganda. Now, why would they want to do that?

The anti-choice movement will use any means possible to prove abortion is bad for women.

Minaj’s case, like many others, has been taken up by the anti-choice movement – with the mainstream media along for the ride – to demonstrate that women will not only feel reticent about the circumstances of their unwanted or accidental pregnancy (eg. Minaj was a teenage girl with an older boyfriend), but that they will feel genuine regret about aborting the baby and wish they had kept it.

I can’t say it any better than Ms. writer Amanda Marcotte already has:

The anti-choice movement’s relentless propaganda about “abortion regret” has done some real damage when it comes to women being able to tell their abortion stories in the public sphere… In this current political climate, talking about reproductive decisions in a nuanced, personal fashion seems impossible to do without feeding the machine that suggests that any feelings of regret whatsoever means that abortion is bad for women.

Too right. So, what can we do to stop this?


On Choice, Contraception and Woman Power


Amanda Marcotte for Ms Magazine: Nicki Minaj and the Inevitable Politicization of Celebrity Abortions

Rolling Stone: Nicki Minaj Is Hip-Hop’s Killer Diva: Inside Rolling Stone’s New Issue

(Originally published on on 12 January 2015)

The F-word: a plethora of personal feminisms


I fear I have been thinking as an extremist. Not just thinking, but acting in an ‘if you don’t identify as a feminist then you’re a bellend’ way (as asexblogofonesown put it). Alas, I tend to behave as though everyone believes what I believe and that my beliefs are pretty close to being ‘right’. Doesn’t everyone?

That enjoying baking doesn’t compromise my stance as a feminist any more than my wearing whatever the hell I want or deciding not to shave my legs. But there’s me assuming that my brand of feminism is THE brand of feminism. Frankly, it isn’t.

If I learned anything in 2014, it’s that fourth-wave feminism comes in as many shapes, sizes and colours as women themselves.

How do I know? By reading.

I started with Caitlin Moran (who got me shouting ‘I am a Feminist!‘ at the top of my voice) and spiralled from there. I read Greer; I read Butler. I read Everyday Sexism, The Vagenda, and was given Vagina: A New Biography for my birthday (thanks Mum). I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech We Should All Be Feminists on my kindle, wondering where Beyonce had got that quote and how she had suddenly become a feminist icon overnight. I argued endlessly about whether ‘Queen Bey’ could or should be seen as such a thing, taking a different stance depending on who I was arguing with.


As I argued, I felt my own views shift and change. As I widened by horizons I opened my mind to different perspectives, to different variations on the same theme. I never strayed from feminism, but I saw value in and let myself be influenced by the abundance of opinions around me.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what THE definition of feminism was. Realistically, I found, no amount of reading, researching, writing or even living could tell me that, because feminism has become something large, fluid and out of reach.

I simply held fast to the values that have been with me for as long as I can remember, essentially: pro-women and pro-equality, underscored with a feeling that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

I read fifty extremely varied accounts of what feminism means to fifty individual women, all of whom are successful in their field but have had to call upon feminist backgrounds to negotiate their way through the world. Reading Fifty Shades of Feminism was a crystalline moment for me. It did the opposite of define. The anthology embraced difference. It showed me fifty widely varying personal feminisms.

This plethora of feminisms is wonderful – women from all kinds of backgrounds, all over the world, giving their two cents, making a contribution and getting heard (at last)! Inspired, I said plenty of things in my own way – about hair, periods, contraception, education, marriage… Suddenly I had a real channel for my writing – why had it taken me so long to get going?!

IMG_0961Briefly though, I have feel double-crossed by fourth wave feminism. No – not feminism, but “feminists”. The label is important. The label is what’s been misused, not the values.

I was very worried when confronted by an old acquaintance for whom feminism is an cultural theory that, in his words, has ‘failed us’. He assured my entire Facebook world that the label “feminism” was used for more evil than good in 2014 – to shame, blame and scare people.

As a label, “feminism” has a long history of social stigma. Being a “feminist” has meant militancy, anger, and hatred of any human without a vulva. Being a “feminist” has meant bra burning and unusual amounts of body hair. Being a feminist has been a social faux pas for far too long. People have long felt uncomfortable about expressing their opinions, uncomfortable about labelling themselves as feminists.

I was relieved at the prospect that those ideas might finally be lifting, that humorous and intelligent contemporary writers like Caitlin Moran might actually be changing the way Feminism is viewed. With it came an onslaught of newfound and reborn feminists. ‘Fantastic!’ I thought, ‘Maybe something will really get done!

With them, though, came the extremists. Bra burners became slut shamers… and far worse. There have been accusations of rape with little or no evidence. There have been claims that feminism has the answers to all social problems. And, something I did not know until yesterday: there have been positive statements about the male suicide rate being higher than the female suicide rate. From feminists.

In its growth, feminism has become like any major social organisation, whether religious or political: the extremists get the attention or are most memorable and create a (new) stereotype. People are using the label as if to justify their evil actions, thus rebuilding a (much worse) stigma around the label. (‘Why now?’ my heart cries. ‘We’d only just reclaimed it for ourselves!’)

IMG_0966There’s a problem in the need to claim everyone. Like a political movement or a religious group, feminists want to enlighten those around them. The cost of an all-welcoming, all-encompassing, all-consuming social movement is that not all of its followers will agree on everything. Far too easily, the few can become the stereotype.

Many Christians have told me that they don’t believe someone can be a good person unless they believe in and serve God in their good deeds (perhaps not in quite those words). They couldn’t see that a young woman working herself into the ground for others’ benefit could be praise-worthy, because she was not religious (that woman was me).

Is determination that everyone who values gender equality should identify as a feminist is essentially the same thing?

Do really need to publicly ridicule people for not being feminists? Will we ever accept that not all people who value gender rights equality have to identify as feminists? Are we so desperate to get more fuel on the feminist fire that we don’t care how it burns?

No wonder people are uncomfortable about expressing their values as “feminism”. The label has been compromised. That doesn’t mean feminism has failed us. It’s not obsolete. The values are still relevant. It just means more work. Redefinition (for example, as intersectional feminists*) and reclamation.
We have already reclaimed feminism. A whole plethora of personal feminisms.
*Intersectionality concerns the way multiple oppressions intersect. Intersectional feminism is an attempt to elevate and make space for the voices and issues of those who are marginalised, and a framework for recognising how class, race, age, ability, sexuality, gender and other issues combine to affect women’s experience of discrimination.


The fourth wave of feminism: meet the rebel women on The Guardian

An Open Letter to Kaley Cuoco, Who Has Been a Bit of a Bellend by asexblogofonesown